The first quarter of the Formula One season is a grueling test of endurance and long haul plane ride patience for everyone who takes part in the circus that is the pinnacle of Motorsport. This past weekend we found ourselves on the other side of the globe, back in Asia, and in the world’s largest city of an astounding 23 million people…Shanghai, China!
As anyone who’s ever been to China knows, you don’t just arrive at the immigration control and say “Hi! I’m Here!” like we can nearly everywhere else on the calendar. It’s a process that will test the limits of any sane, rational, and patient person. But in the end, it usually all works out, and so it did. There I was, after what turned out to be nearly 46 hours of travel, standing at the immigration counter. I hand my passport with a J2 Chinese journalist visa to a grumpy looking man across the glass winow who looks at me, looks at my passport, looks at me, looks at my passport, looks back at me and then back at my passport. I guess the long trip had taken a toll on my appearance? Or maybe that’s just China. Regardless, my bags and I had made it in one piece to the far east.
Having missed all of Thursday due to a flight delay, and with no ability to acclimate to the track or time zone, it was straight into practice 1 on Friday morning. I spent nearly two of the free practice sessions of the weekend in the pit lane. It’s hard to get a feel for what the cars are doing on track, but it’s good to see the drivers milling about outside of the cars when they aren’t running laps. Mercedes’ Hamilton was looking cool, calm and collected. Taking time to laugh with team boss, Toto Wolff. His teammate, Nico Rosberg ,studiously pouring over data on the bank of computers on the side of the garage. Red Bull’s Vettel looking determined, but frustrated. Ricciardo, well who knows what the guy is actually feeling, all I know is he almost always has a smile from ear to ear. Life is good for the Australian. Alonso however has a face that lets you look deep into his soul. Sitting in the back of the garage on his Ferrari “throne”, he stares blankly into space. Not at the car, but through it. Just days before the Grand Prix weekend, Ferrari fired it’s Team Principal and hired a new one. The new chief of the world’s most recognized race team is essentially a glorified car salesman from the United States, and who amazingly has less experience around race cars than I do. Bad business decision is pretty much the unanimous opinion around the paddock. but time will tell.
On track, the looks from the drivers were gone. Replaced by the new turbo grunts and whistles and squealing tires as the cars struggled for grip around the fast corners. Mercedes seems to go where it wants, and be fast anywhere. From Jerez testing day 1, we knew it was going to be Mercedes at the sharp end of the field. But over the last few races, and despite something of a terrible weekend for Ferrari, Alonso seems to have wringed the car’s neck into something it probably shouldn’t be. It is certainly a testimate to his driving more than it is the car’s potential. Lotus is no where. Locking up in half the corners. Breaking down randomly and without warning in the other half. It seems Alonso’s teammate, the famous one worded Finn that we all love, made the right decision to jump a sinking ship. But it seems the ship he has climbed into is sitting quite low in the water as well.
The most improved award for the first quarter of the season simply must go to the squad from Milton Keynes. Red Bull has taken a car that barely made it through a lap during winter testing and turned it into one that is certainly heading toward the front end of the grid. Watch it around the corners and you can see quite clearly that Adrian Newey has not lost his touch with designing race cars. It hugs the inside curb of turn 1, 2 and 3. A complex that will show you what the car’s strengths are, and what it’s weaknesses are. If it understeers or oversteers, you’re going to see it here. To my eyes, at this point, the biggest downfall for Red Bull is what powers the car. Renault simply doesn’t have the horse power that Mercedes has. And it is obvious down the enormous long back straight.
So on Sunday afternoon, after the dust and Shanghai’s famous smog had settled, Hamilton had landed his third win in a row and is continuing his march on F1 domination in 2014. Laughing and smiling during the post race press conference, he is supremely content. Rosberg, still holding the lead to the championship, but very much looking like the number two driver after three second places in a row, and is visibly frustrated. And finally Alonso, on the podium, but not looking happy at all to be a distant third. The writing on the wall is clear for everyone in the paddock. Mercedes is unstoppable, at the moment.
Back to Europe we go. The second quarter of the season is the one that will tell us most about the new era of F1. The hardcore European audience will finally have a chance to see and hear the cars in person. And the classic tracks that have made F1 what it is will get their turn to host.
Many thanks to James, Russ, Laurent, Tati, Andy, TK and Richard and the mostly friendly Chinese people who welcomed F1 into their country once again.